Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Paschal Death of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, I would like to share some theological reflection from the Church Fathers on the meaning of the Feast. SVS Press has published a wonderful book, On the Dormition of Mary - Early Patristic Homilies. These works are translated by Brian E. Daly, almost all for the first time into English. The homilies included in this volume come from the early 6th - 9th c. This was the earlier part of the Byzantine Era of the Church, and these homilies are characterized by the lofty rhetoric of that period's homiletic literature. Perhaps the greatest homilist of that era was St. John of Damascus (+749), one of the great theologians in the history of the Church. St. John combines profound theological insight with a highly-developed grasp and use of the rules of rhetoric. Perhaps a mere sampling of a passage or two, may convey something of his gift as theologian and orator:

Oh, see how the source of life is carried over into life, through the midst of death! See how the one who overcame the defining limits of nature in her childbearing now gives way to those same limits, and submits her unsullied body to death! It was only right for that body to "lay aside what is mortal and put on immortality" (I Cor. 15:53), since the Lord of nature himself did not refuse the test of death. He died in the flesh, and by that death destroyed death, bestowed incorruptibility on corrupt nature, and made death the source of resurrection. See how the maker of all things receives into his own hands her holy soul, now separated from that tabernacle that received God. He rightly honors her who was by nature his handmaid, but whom by his saving plan he made to be his mother, in the unfathomable ocean of his love for humanity. For he truly became flesh, and did not feign his incarnation!

... Therefore I will not call your holy passing [from this world] a death, but rather a falling-asleep, a parting, or - more properly speaking - a homecoming. For when you parted from the things of the body, you went to make your dwelling among greater things.

St. John of Damascus, Homily I, 10.

Another great homilist from that era, one would can "rival" St. John of Damascus, is St. Andrew of Crete (+740) and author of the celebrated Great Canon of Repentance. St. Andrew also beautifully extols the death of the Theotokos as a "paschal death" that reveals the saving fruits of Christ's own death and resurrection:

Indeed, if I must speak the truth, the death that is natural to the human race even reached as far as Mary: not that it held her captive as it holds us, or that it overcame her - far from it! But it touched her enough to let her experience that sleep that is for us, if I may put it this way, a kind of ecstatic movement towards the things we only hope for during this life, a passage that leads us on towards transformation into a state like that of God. ... She fell into a natural sleep and tasted death, but did not remain held by it; she simply followed the laws of nature and fulfilled God's plan, which the Providence that guides all things laid down for us from the beginning. Her role, surely, was to show us clearly the way she has moved through the transformation from a corruptible state to an incorruptible one - something that is only thinkable if a natural dissolution of these elements of our body should take place first, and if then the life that has melted away should be forged anew.

St. Andrew of Crete, Homily II, 4.

Fr. Steven

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